Breadwinners and Citizens: Gender in the Making of the French Social Model
Breadwinners and Citizens: Gender in the Making of the French Social Model

Breadwinners and Citizens: Gender in the Making of the French Social Model

by Laura Levine Frader


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Laura Levine Frader’s synthesis of labor history and gender history brings to the fore failures in realizing the French social model of equality for all citizens. Challenging previous scholarship, she argues that the male breadwinner ideal was stronger in France in the interwar years than scholars have typically recognized, and that it had negative consequences for women’s claims to the full benefits of citizenship. She describes how ideas about masculinity, femininity, family, and work affected post–World War I reconstruction, policies designed to address France’s postwar population deficit, and efforts to redefine citizenship in the 1920s and 1930s. She demonstrates that gender divisions and the male breadwinner ideal were reaffirmed through the policies and practices of labor, management, and government. The social model that France implemented in the 1920s and 1930s incorporated fundamental social inequalities.

Frader’s analysis moves between the everyday lives of ordinary working women and men and the actions of national policymakers, political parties, and political movements, including feminists, pro-natalists, and trade unionists. In the years following World War I, the many women and an increasing number of immigrant men in the labor force competed for employment and pay. Family policy was used not only to encourage reproduction but also to regulate wages and the size of the workforce. Policies to promote married women’s and immigrants’ departure from the labor force were more common when jobs were scarce, as they were during the Depression. Frader contends that gender and ethnicity exerted a powerful and unacknowledged influence on French social policy during the Depression era and for decades afterward.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822341826
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/28/2008
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Laura Levine Frader is Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Northeastern University. She is the author of The Industrial Revolution and Peasants and Protest: Agricultural Workers, Politics, and Unions in the Aude, 1850–1914. She is a coeditor of Gender and Class in Modern Europe and of Race in France: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Politics of Difference.

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Gender in the Making of the French Social Model


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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4198-7

Chapter One


Massive mortality, destruction of industrial infrastructure in the north, and widespread food shortages constituted only a few of the challenges France faced in the aftermath of World War I. In contrast to Britain, where a discourse of "a return to normalcy" defined the project of post-World War I recovery, France embarked on a much broader and more deliberate process of national reconstruction and regeneration that encompassed efforts to stimulate population growth, rebuild economic infrastructures, contain social unrest, and reconstitute the labor force in the wake of massive wartime losses. Over 16 percent of French enlisted men had died-the highest casualty rate of any of the European combatants with the exception of Germany and Russia.

Demobilization and reconstruction involved the Herculean task of rebuilding industrial infrastructure and redeploying the wartime labor force in the midst of a dramatic labor shortage. It also implied the regeneration of the social body in real and symbolic terms in a country whose birthrate was the lowest in Western Europe (18.1 per thousand in 1914; 12.6 in 1919). The loss of some one and a half million lives and the injury or maiming of another one and a half million also profoundly marked efforts to reestablish social stability, the family, and men's and women's places both in the home and in civil society. By 1919, labor shortage and widespread industrial unrest accompanied men's reinsertion into the labor market and corresponding visions of women's return to home and family. Massive immigration brought over one million foreign workers into France between 1919 and 1924, their numbers nearly tripling by 1931, challenging the contours of French "identity." This chapter examines how employers, workers, and the state dealt with these competing challenges in the process of reconstituting French society after the war. It looks specifically at the reaffirmation of gender difference through social policies and the debates they elicited. Tension between the desire to reinforce the position of male breadwinners and fathers on the one hand and the need for women's labor in key sectors on the other hand constituted an important legacy of the war. Anxieties about gender that ultimately underscored France's social model were played out at the intersecting sites of culture, the family, and work.

* * *

The paradigm of a gendered reserve army of labor has influenced much thinking about the effects of wars on periods of postwar reconstruction: women would take on "male jobs" during wartime and withdraw from the labor force following wars as men returned to their former positions. Yet this model does not capture the nuances of French recovery following World War I. The war arguably disrupted gender divisions at work and shattered the fragile boundaries between public and private realms. It also destabilized prewar assumptions about gender and power as women expanded their arenas of expertise and authority in men's absence. Some 500,000 women contributed to the war effort as armaments workers, machining metal on laths and loading shell; by sewing military uniforms; by volunteering in hospitals and canteens; and by driving Red Cross ambulances in the field, counting for fully 46 percent of the labor force in 1918 (from 38.2 percent in 1911). But the apparent suppression of gender difference during the war proved to be partial and superficial. As Laura Downs has shown, gender difference remained central to the wartime organization of labor. Employers mobilized what they defined as women's gender-specific skills to rationalize wartime defense production and create unskilled "women's work" in the defense industries. During the war, as women left behind domesticity and "feminine" occupations, debate raged over the effects of munitions work on women's childbearing capacities and employers and government officials scrutinized their morality as they worked alongside colonial workers. Although government officials and social observers marveled at their abilities and applauded women's labor as essential, they never viewed it as "normal." This would become strikingly apparent at the end of the war. As wartime industries shut down at the end of 1918 and women shifted out of armaments production, despite a drop in women's labor force participation, their presence in paid employment remained strong (see table 1, page 47).

At the war's end, conservatives and liberals alike participated in reestablishing gender boundaries as many came to see the reconstitution of masculinity and femininity as central to the task of national reconstruction. Postwar literary representations of women embodied a devastating critique of the shift in women's employment, reproductive choices, and fashion. Concerns about gender relations saturated writing about soldiers' return from the front as novelists and essayists depicted efforts to reconstitute male authority and power in domestic life. At the end of the war, soldiers described their anxieties about coming home, their fears of a sea change in conjugal relations, and humiliation at their loss of authority as breadwinners. The novelist Gaston Rageot described how some men, returning from the front felt compelled to relieve and care for their wives, whereas "others felt a confused humiliation because they were no longer the breadwinners. All were persuaded that they would never find their wives exactly as they had left them: some would be lost and the best would have become authoritarian and imperious, playing at being the boss." As one soldier wrote, "Coming home victorious ... will it be fair to return to a deserted hearth where our authority, so hard-won, will no longer be recognized? ... Pushed out of his age-old role as protector at the moment when he has just qualified once more for the title, will [the returning soldier] have to put up with sharing civil and political struggles with women?" Although the novelist and country doctor Ernest Perochon praised women as the guardians of hearth and home in his 1924 postwar romantic evocation of peasant life, Les gardiennes, he too mourned the loss of male control: "The virile fist was gone and the capricious beings upon whom it ultimately weighed now sought to emancipate themselves."

Whereas some criticized women's independence and control in men's absence, other writers targeted women's alleged sexual promiscuity and charged that women had been "living it up" at home while men perished at the front. Louis Barthas, a corporal in the 81st infantry, illustrated this view of women as egotistical pleasure seekers as he bitterly observed that Parisian women, "with their décolleté dresses and short skirts, bare arms and shoulders seemed [only] to care about looking attractive" while the Big Berthas rained bombs on France and soldiers fell right and left. Indeed, the contrast between women's comparative safety on the home front and the horrors of the real front produced no end of war and postwar bitterness and resentment, culminating in the cultural critique of the independent woman of the 1920s that has been described so vividly by Mary-Louise Roberts.

Descriptions of gender anxiety constituted a revealing dimension of the cultural challenges of postwar reconstruction. While femininity has been subject to much historical analysis, less historical work has analyzed the reassertion of masculinity to reestablish that "virile fist." Yet the war not only provoked a critique of the independent woman; it also raised concerns about men's resumption of their dominant position in a new postwar order. This chapter argues that postwar attempts to reestablish both hegemonic ideals of femininity and motherhood alongside masculine authority and fatherhood underscored the social and economic reconstruction of the post-war years. Yet policymakers and social observers who sought to reaffirm gender divisions did not simply reproduce prewar gender ideals and cultural practices but established them on new foundations in response to the demands of particular postwar dilemmas and conjunctures. France's demographic deficit proved to be especially salient to reconstruction and led to innumerable debates about and initiatives designed to regenerate the national body-initiatives that proved fundamental to casting the origins of the French social model.

Regenerating the National Body

Historians have long noted how states have used the politics of sexuality and reproductive policy in furthering national and nationalist aims. The project of healing the French nation after World War I was no different. In a political environment dominated by the conservative Bloc national government, doctors, social observers, and the state officials mobilized around demographic recovery. Pronatalist agitation predated World War I and France's historically low birthrate preoccupied social observers in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Following France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, in the context of intense anti-German sentiment, numerous works appeared on the subject, raising the specter of national degeneration. Émile Zola denounced France's chronic low population growth, and particularly infanticide, in his 1899 novel La fécondité. Social critics targeted high infant mortality, usually framed as a class issue and linked to attacks on women's work outside the home, as the source of prewar demographic stagnation and France's loss of international prestige. As in 1870, the invasion of northern departments in late 1914 and the rapid French defeat during World War I immediately turned attention to the problem of low French fertility as responsible for the weakness of the French army. Doctors simultaneously debated the compatibility of women's defense work with maternal health. Following the war, an explosion of proposals and policies designed to promote population growth and regenerate the national body resurfaced. Public discussions, debates, and policies in this domain deployed and in turn constituted notions of masculinity and fatherhood alongside femininity and motherhood. The deeply troubling wartime atrocities, particularly the rape of French women by German soldiers, and the fate of the children who resulted from these rapes, played a brief, but telling role in these debates.

Atrocities perpetrated by enemy soldiers on French women in the first three months of the war and the production of "children of the barbarians" constituted one of several forms of violent intrusion of foreigners upon the national body. The maternal bodies of raped women became a symbolic battlefield. The little that scholars have written on the subject has focused on women's victimization and the debate over whether women who had been raped by German soldiers and became pregnant should be permitted to abort, or on the representation of rape as a violation of the (female) nation and the French race. Although feminists, deputies, and doctors supported allowing victims of rape to abort, proposals that the laws penalizing abortion be relaxed for French women in the occupied departments who had been raped never saw the light of day. Rather, the government ordered public assistance hospitals to admit raped and pregnant women free of charge and pledged to pay the expenses of home deliveries by a midwife. French maternity stood at the center of this debate, and from the perspective of doctors and others opposed to abortion, bearing these children gave mothers an opportunity to perform a kind of national service by raising them as French citizens. French mothers' milk could make them French. At the same time, as Ruth Harris and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau have pointed out, rape not only constituted the humiliation of French women; it constituted an assault on the masculinity and honor of French men, powerless to defend their homes and families. Documentary sources as well as visual and literary representations of rape portrayed German men as a "race" of aggressive barbarians embodying masculine force and violence. They also depicted French men as helpless victims of French moral frailty and decadence as well as of the rape of their wives and daughters.

The pregnancies that resulted from these rapes raised further questions about the power of French fatherhood and motherhood in wartime and the eugenics dimension of these debates showed how concerns about biological regeneration in France intersected with concerns about racial purity and national stability. Indeed, in 1915, a French labor activist writing under the name of Jehan Rictus racialized the German rapist in the pages of La Bataille syndicaliste: the "German race" is "an inferior and unworldly race. Whatever they do they will remain gorillas, orang-outangs.... The child of the German can only become ... a brute and a criminal degenerate." Both of these issues appeared in discussions of telegony or "physiological impregnation," the theory that once impregnated with German sperm, a woman's body was altered forever; "once violated, French women might also pass on Teutonic heredity to subsequent children conceived with French husbands." Indeed some of the most eminent physicians were convinced that "the propagation of [the French] race is menaced ... for ... the [result of] rape and pregnancy ... [is] a fetus that bears, in large part, the traits of the male progenitor." Embedded within concerns about telegony and threats to "racial" purity were fears about French men's ability to transmit their traits to offspring and hence concerns about masculine sexual and reproductive potency. As Harris has written, the effort to repopulate France can also be construed as "[men's] means of re-appropriating French women, the French family, and French national territory." Arguably, concern about rape and the fate of the potential offspring of these unions was most intense during the early stages of the war, as German troops swept over the north of France. But historical evidence suggests that the threat to masculine identity produced by German soldiers' rapes of French women and the debate over whether women could bear children who would carry the genetic imprint of the father also endured as part of the war's cultural legacy. Ultimately, the larger issue of replacing France's enormous losses overshadowed the memory of German atrocities.


Excerpted from BREADWINNERS AND CITIZENS by LAURA LEVINE FRADER Copyright © 2008 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION. Gender in the Making of the French Social Model....................15
ONE. Reconstruction and Regeneration after World War I....................51
TWO. Gender Division, the Family, and the Citizen-Worker....................103
THREE. Managing the Human Factor....................139
FOUR. Organized Labor, Rationalization, and Breadwinners....................169
FIVE. Toward the Social Model: Citizenship, Rights, and Social Provision....................193
SIX. Economic Rights and the Gender of Breadwinners: The Depression of the 1930s....................229

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